Israel’s New President, Playing Catch-Up


The office of the president of the State of Israel is largely symbolic, intended to unify the country and bring it enhanced stature. But from the outset the definition of the role, to “stand at the head of the state,” has been vague, leading critics to call for its abolishment on the grounds that it is unnecessary and costly.

Whatever one’s views of Shimon Peres during the course of his long political career, his term as president these last seven years made him one of the most popular and well known statesmen in the world. Now, with the campaign that led up to the election of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin of Likud on Tuesday as Israel’s ninth president, the number of critics of the position may well increase, particularly in this country.

Israelis have tried to keep the election process for president removed from politics, but nothing in Israel is apolitical. And this year’s campaign was particularly nasty, with one candidate, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, pulling out at the last minute after press reports of financial improprieties, and several others accused of a variety of misdeeds. Rivlin, who was elected by the Knesset in a second round of voting — Meir Sheetrit of Hatunah came in second — acknowledged in his first address as president the need to restore confidence in the office. “I must rehabilitate that trust,” he said, pledging to “serve the public faithfully.”

Rivlin served twice as speaker of the Knesset and was considered fair and respectful of others. But as a self-proclaimed follower of Revisionist founder Zeev Jabotinsky, he “opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians and wants Israel to retain the West Bank,” according to JTA. Of particular concern to liberal Jews, Rivlin, a secular Jew, has equated Reform Judaism with “idol worship” and has refused to refer to Reform rabbis by their rabbinic title.

Perhaps aware of the criticism in this country when such statements came to light again in recent days, he noted in his inaugural talk that he is leaving Likud to serve all Israelis, “Jews, Arabs, Druse, rich, poor, those who are more observant and those who are less.”

Even critics of his politics speak of him as a kind person. But even those who like him acknowledge that his opposition to a two-state solution will be a marked and difficult contrast to Peres, who was an effective spokesman for Israel on the international scene, presenting an image of a peace-seeker.

Much will depend on how Rivlin acts in his new post. We hope he takes to heart the notion that he now leaves politics behind and stands “at the head of the state,” with a mandate to bring Israelis closer together and bring honor to his country, and his people.